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North Korean soldiers ordered to harvest grass for compost in spare time

North Korean soldiers in low-level military units have an unusual and not entirely welcome new mission: collecting grass during summer training breaks to produce compost for farms, sources inside the country said.

The impoverished and isolated country suffers from chronic shortages of chemical-based fertilizer during the summer growing season, a situation that has grown worse since 2020 because of border closures with China that cut off trade during the coronavirus pandemic.

Each year, North Korean citizens are tasked by their government to fill unrealistically high government quotas for fertilizer. But the material they typically collect is human waste, which gets mixed with soil and applied to farm fields.

“The dissatisfaction among soldiers is increasing as each unit uses their free time to meet the grass quotas,” a military-related source in North Hamgyong province told RFA on Tuesday.

The General Political Bureau of the People’s Army sets grass compost production quotas for all military units each August and September, said the source who declined to be identified so as to speak freely.

Each soldier is required to produce 50 kilograms (110 lbs.) of grass daily in order to produce compost, he added.

They make natural fertilizer by cutting grass on a nearby mountainside as well as in areas to which they are assigned for their quotas, the military-related source said. 

“This is all after their daily training,” he said. “As they are required to produce natural fertilizer in their free time after mandatory training, the soldiers are becoming exhausted. The morale of the soldiers participating in the training is declining day by day.”

North Koreans cannot understand why authorities are mobilizing soldiers and assigning them to miscellaneous tasks like grass collection for compost, even though they verbally emphasize the importance of their training during the summer months, the military-related source said.

They order the soldiers to produce grass-based fertilizer, stressing the importance of providing for the greater society to the benefit of all North Koreans, he said. 

“The soldiers are confused because they have no idea how to go along with all these different orders,” he said.

High-level commands are conducting frequent inspections to encourage the soldiers’ production of grass-based fertilizer, a military-related source in Ryanggang province told RFA on Tuesday.

“The staff in each unit is obligated to report the grass-cutting performance of subordinate units,” said the source who declined to be named for the same reason. “Each officer in charge of a unit is struggling to match the daily performance.”

Even officers are questioning why authorities are forcing them to produce grass-based fertilizer, he said.

“Some military officers are complaining and saying, ‘We should make the military’s main job of training as a side job instead, and change farming to the main job of the military,’” said the source.

Earlier this week, RFA reported that North Korean authorities are dispatching veterans and soldiers about to demobilize to collective farms to make up for labor shortages, raising fears among the military ranks that they will be stuck working in rural areas for the rest of their lives.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee for RFA Korean. Translated by Roseanne Gerin.